Early Childhood Education

Developmentally Appropriate Practice(s) (DAP)


In the early childhood context the adjective “developmentally appropriate” means varying for or adapting to the age, experience, abilities, and interests of individual children within a given age range. The specific historical origins of the term are unclear, but it is likely that it originated within the field of developmental psychology, which has had considerable influence on the field of early childhood education. Manufacturers of children’s toys, clothing, furniture, and other materials regularly make judgments about what is developmentally appropriate when they alert consumers to the age group for which their product is designed. Early childhood educators often use the phrase, “developmentally appropriate,” when they describe materials, learning experiences, or expectations of children of varying ages.

Developmentally appropriate practice (sometimes abbreviated as DAP) is a short-hand phrase that has been widely used in the early childhood profession to describe ways of teaching young children that reflect knowledge of child development and learning, and that vary with the age, experience, abilities, interests, needs, and strengths of individual children. The term gained recognition and influence when the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) first published a position statement promoting such teaching practices (Bredekamp, 1987). Initially, many early childhood educators embraced the concept and the publication became the best-selling book in NAEYC’s history with more than 700,000 copies sold.

Within several years, however, the book and the concept of developmentally appropriate practice became the object of considerable criticism and discussion within the profession. The critique in the literature and during public forums created an excellent opportunity for debate within the field. In 1997, after several years of work, NAEYC issued a completely revised edition of the publication that attempted to address many of the critics’ concerns as well as more current research and theory (Bredekamp and Copple, 1997). NAEYC’s current position states the following:

Developmentally appropriate programs are based on what is known about how children develop and learn; such programs promote the development and enhance the learning of each individual child served.

Developmentally appropriate practices result from the process of professionals making decisions about the well-being and education of children based on at least three important kinds of information or knowledge:

(1) What is known about child development and learning—knowledge of age-related human characteristics that permits general predictions within an age range about what activities, materials, interactions, or experiences will be safe, healthy, interesting, achievable, and also challenging to children.

(2) What is known about the strengths, interests, and needs of each individual child in the group to be able to adapt for and be responsive to inevitable individual variation.

(3) Knowledge of the social and cultural contexts in which children live to ensure that learning experiences are meaningful, relevant, and respectful for the participating children and their families.

Furthermore, each of these dimensions of knowledge—human development and learning, individual characteristics and experiences, and social and cultural contexts—is dynamic and changing, requiring that early childhood teachers remain learners throughout their careers (Bredekamp and Copple, 1997, pp. 8-9).


History of Developmentally Appropriate Practice

All development occurs in social, historical, and political context, including the development of fields of practice and scholarship. The 1987 edition of DAP was written in response to two particular trends occurring in the last part of the twentieth century. First, NAEYC had just launched a national, voluntary accreditation system for high-quality early-childhood programs. The phrase “developmental^ appropriate” was used throughout the accreditation criteria. Without further definition, the criteria were subject to widely varying interpretations by program personnel and validators making onsite visits for accreditation. A second motivation for the position statement was the trend toward what is referred to as a push-down curriculum in which primary-grade academic expectations and teaching practices such as whole-group, teacher-directed instruction were being moved down to kindergarten or even preschool. With increasing numbers of public schools serving four-year-olds, association leaders felt strongly that those programs needed guidance about what kinds of practices are developmentally appropriate for that age group.

The concept of developmental appropriateness seemed most relevant to early childhood educators in terms of thinking about the needs and characteristics of different age groups, so NAEYC produced a statement that addressed the issue across the full age-span of birth through eight years. For example, the level of independent functioning or social interaction expected of a two-year-old is, according to most child development research, quite different from that expected of a seven-year-old.

In the 1987 statement, developmental appropriateness was defined as having two dimensions: age-appropriateness, and individual appropriateness. The 1987 statement called for a balance of teacher-directed and child-initiated experiences, and clearly stressed the value of play and child initiation. Perhaps most significantly, the document contrasted examples of appropriate and inappropriate practice for each age group. The decision to include negative as well as positive examples was momentous, generating considerable attention to the book. But the dichotomization of appropriate and inappropriate practice also created problems such as oversimplifying the complex act of teaching and leading some practitioners to either/or thinking in place of serious reflection.

Criticisms of the 1987 edition of Developmentally Appropriate Practice are well documented (Bredekamp and Copple, 1997; Mallory and New, 1994). To summarize, they include: “1) the either/or oversimplification of practice; 2) overemphasis on child development and underemphasis on curriculum content; 3) the passivity of the teacher’s role, the failure to recognize the value of teacher direction; 4) lack of awareness of the significant role of culture in development and learning (white, middle-class bias); 5) lack of application for children with disabilities and special needs; 6) overemphasis on the individual child and underemphasis on relationships and social construction of knowledge; 7) naivete about the significant role of families” (Bredekamp 2001, p. 108).

The 1997 edition of Developmentally Appropriate Practice attempted to address many of these concerns. NAEYC also developed a position statement in conjunction with the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education on curriculum as a companion piece. In these documents, rather than viewing developmentally appropriate practice as a prescription that is found in a book, teachers are described as professional decision-makers; and the revised position statement includes a set of principles and guidelines for making decisions. The guidelines address the complexity of early childhood practice: creating a caring community of learners; teaching to enhance learning and development; constructing appropriate curriculum; assessing children’s learning and development; and establishing reciprocal relationships with families. To reflect the central role of culture in development, the actual definition of what is developmentally appropriate was expanded to include knowledge of the social and cultural context. To go beyond oversimplifications, the document challenges the field to move from either/or to both/and thinking.


Developmentally Appropriate Practices and Curriculum Content

Shortly after the 1997 edition of Developmentally Appropriate Practice was published, leaders of the International Reading Association (IRA) criticized it for failing to reflect current knowledge about the importance of effective early literacy instruction in the early years. Noting that the position statement was never intended to outline specific content areas, NAEYC collaborated with members of the IRA and wrote a joint position statement, Learning to Read and Write: Developmentally Appropriate Practices for Young Children (Neuman, Copple, and Bredekamp, 2000). This statement applied the definition of developmentally appropriate practices to a specific curriculum area: “Developmentally appropriate practices in reading and writing are ways of teaching that consider (1) what is generally known about children’s development and learning to set achievable but challenging goals for literacy learning and to plan learning experiences and teaching strategies that vary with the age and experience of the learners; (2) results of ongoing assessment of individual children’s progress in reading and writing to plan next steps or to adapt instruction when children fail to make expected progress or are at advanced levels; and (3) social and cultural contexts in which children live so as to help them make sense of their learning experiences in relation to what they already know and are able to do.” The position goes on to say, “To teach in developmentally appropriate ways, teachers must understand both the continuum of reading and writing and children’s individual and cultural variations. Teachers must recognize when variation is within the typical range and when intervention is necessary, because early intervention is more effective and less costly than later remediation” (Neuman, Copple, and Bredekamp 2000, p. 19).

Applying the concept of developmentally appropriate practices to a specific curriculum area, in this case early literacy, provided a model that NAEYC also used for mathematics in a joint position with the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). Similar frameworks could be used in all curriculum content areas.


The Future of Developmentally Appropriate Practices

The subject of developmentally appropriate practice continues to be controversial within the field with some people calling for elimination of the term from the early childhood lexicon. Critics continue to challenge the construct’s almost total reliance on [improved and more culturally informed] child development theory and oversight of educational and curriculum theories. The concept has become highly politicized as well, with some government entities censoring its use in official publications. A position statement is, by definition, a political statement that addresses an issue of controversy. So it is not surprising that DAP generates controversy just as it attempts to resolve it. NAEYC’s leaders will determine the future of Developmentally Appropriate Practice(s) as a position statement and publication. The 1997 edition called for regular review of the concept and revised statements at least every ten years.

The future of developmentally appropriate practice (with lowercase letters) is more certain since it is likely that teachers, parents, and commercial product developers will continue to find it useful to vary experiences and expectations for young children with attention their age, individual characteristics, and cultural and linguistic backgrounds. See also Academics; Preschool/Prekindergartern Programs.

Further Readings: Bloch, M. N. (1992). Critical perspectives on the historical relationship between child development and early childhood education research. In S. Kessler and B. B. Swadener, eds. Reconceptualizing the early childhood curriculum: Beginning the dialogue, pp. 3-20; Bredekamp, Sue, ed. (1987). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age 8. Exp. ed. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children; Bredekamp, Sue, ed. (2001). Improving professional practice: A letter to Patty Smith Hill. In NAEYC at 75: Reflections on the Past, Challenges for the Future. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children, pp. 89-124; Bredekamp, Sue, and Carol Copple, eds. (1997). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs. Rev. ed. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children; Dahlberg, Gunilla, Peter Moss, and Alan Pence (1999). Beyond quality in early childhood education and care: Postmodern perspectives. London: Falmer Press; Mallory, Bruce L., and Rebecca S. New, eds. (1994). Diversity and developmentally appropriate practices: Challenges for early childhood education. New York: Teachers College Press; Neuman, Susan B., Carol Copple, and Sue Bredekamp (2000). Learning to read and write: Developmentally appropriate practices for young children. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Sue Bredekamp